Ways of Seeing Wholes: Systemic Problem Structuring Methods for the Uninitiated

CHARLTON, Michael (2021). Ways of Seeing Wholes: Systemic Problem Structuring Methods for the Uninitiated. Doctoral, Sheffield Hallam University.

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Link to published version:: https://doi.org/10.7190/shu-thesis-00510


Softer forms of systems thinking and Soft-OR (Operational Research) provide the theory, the methodology and the methods by which managers can see the situations they are trying to manage as wholes. They facilitate what has become known as “bigger picture” thinking and are widely acknowledged as effective ways to manage complexity. But despite nearly 50 years of development, the extent to which these ideas have penetrated mainstream management thinking and practice is very limited. Existing research suggests that adoption of systemic problem structuring methods (systemic PSMs) is frustrated by a number of factors. But questions about the take-up of systemic PSMs remain under-theorised. This thesis aims to deepen our understanding of how managers receive and take-up, and sometimes repudiate, systemic PSMs. It uses a qualitative multiple case study design to report findings from four interventions using systemic PSMs in four organisations (two from the UK and two from Romania). The findings are interpreted through the lens of Luhmann’s complex social systems theory. Applications of softer forms of systems thinking are better received and are more likely to be taken-up in situations where an existing organisational decision premise is contested and no longer functions as a stable reference point for future decisions. In these circumstances, managers show greater curiosity in systemic PSMs and are more willing to adopt them to generate new “ways of seeing”. However, they also present managers with a paradox. Used as a means to explore an organisation’s future, and as a means of deciding what that future could be, managers are more reluctant to perform “bigger picture” analyses if the product of such thinking is perceived to over-specify plans for the future; plans which might well turn out to be ill-adapted to a “future” that is fundamentally unknown. This changes the way we think about interventions using systemic PSMs and leads to a theory that produces a more nuanced understanding of the circumstances in which they might be needed and effectively deployed. Existing theory tends to focus on ideal-type problem contexts. But the near-manifestation of such contexts in actual practice does not automatically guarantee that systems-inquiring methods will be taken-up, for existing theory underplays the inherent decision logic of the organisation in which the intervention takes place and underestimates the organisation’s ability to create its own “secondary complexity”. Systemic PSMs are more likely to be in demand when existing “ways of seeing” have been exhausted.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Thesis advisor - Breese, Richard [0000-0003-1283-0354]
Thesis advisor - Wyton, Paul
Additional Information: Director of Studies: Dr. Richard Breese Supervisor: Dr. Paul Wyton
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Sheffield Hallam Doctoral Theses
Identification Number: https://doi.org/10.7190/shu-thesis-00510
Depositing User: Justine Gavin
Date Deposited: 13 Apr 2023 15:37
Last Modified: 11 Oct 2023 15:30
URI: https://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/31764

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